D: John Erick Dowdle / 103m
Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, Thanawut Kasro, Chatchawan Kamonsakpitak, Sahajak Boonthanakit
Set in an unnamed country in South-East Asia, No Escape is one of those survivalist fantasies that puts a lot of effort into stacking the odds against the hero (and his family as well, in this case), but then makes it incredibly easy for him to overcome those odds. Once the viewer realises this, other flaws in the plot become clearer and the initial tension that screenwriters John Erick Dowdle and his brother Drew go to some lengths to arrange, soon decreases the longer the movie plays out. By the end, there have been too many contrivances and coincidences for the tension to be maintained effectively.
Part of the problem here is that it doesn’t take long for the viewer to realise that, the set up notwithstanding – nationalists stage a coup in anger against US investment in the water industry (don’t worry, it almost makes sense) – the script has no intention of being too hard on its hard luck family. Yes, it makes things difficult for them, and yes they’re pursued throughout by one hard-line rebel who’s intent on killing all of them, but as more and more ambushes and deadly encounters are survived, any idea that they’re not going to make it to Vietnam and safety is soon abandoned. Even when they find themselves captured by the rebels, there’s always a delay in executing them that allows the family to be rescued or save themselves.
With any real peril sidelined by the movie’s need to keep its nuclear family free from harm, No Escape becomes even more predictable in its approach. Brosnan’s lively hedonist is revealed to have a darker past than he originally lets on, and once the coup is in full swing, any chance the family has of reaching the American Embassy is always going to be doomed to failure, while random strangers will pop up to help them as and when necessary.
But though it’s entirely predictable, and Wilson’s Jack and Bell’s Annie lack any appreciable depth – Annie doesn’t want to be in South-East Asia, while Jack is making the best of a bad business setback… and that’s it – the movie gets by on its early scenes where the seriousness of the coup begins to sink in, and the targetting of Americans for execution becomes altogether clear (even if the reasoning is a little too pat). The pace is brisk and efficient, and Dowdle uses hand-held photography to good effect (though as a result, some of the framing is off, though this may be deliberate – it’s hard to tell).
On the performance side, Wilson is okay as the determined Jack, but his portrayal reveals a facet of his acting that seems to have gone unnoticed all these years: he doesn’t have a great repertoire of expressions. What this means is that unless he really scrunches up his features, alarm or fear look much the same as surprise or wonder, and panic looks like he’s trying to fathom a difficult math problem. Bell is required to look fearful and upset for most of the movie, and even before the coup takes place, so there’s no hope of a character arc there, and some viewers may be alarmed at the ease with which she exhorts her terrified daughters to stay hidden while she goes off and does something that usually heightens the risk they’re in.
With Wilson and Bell having no choice but to play their roles as earnestly as possible, it’s left to Brosnan’s chirpy Brit to inject a bit of spice into proceedings, but his character, Hammond, is so perilously close to cliché that although he’s a welcome sight when he appears, it’s equally good to see the back of him (to be fair, this is less Brosnan’s fault and more Dowdle’s). As Jack and Annie’s two young girls, Jerins and Geare are both adorable, while the majority of the rebels are just ruthless, nasty thugs hell bent on killing all and sundry. Only Boonthanakit’s taxi driver, who models himself on Kenny Rogers, stands out from the rest of the locals, but sadly it’s in a way that hints at casual racism.
Towards the end, the family’s escape route becomes clear, and they take their chances, but it’s here that the movie makes its biggest faux pas, as it tries to present the city they’ve arrived in as being half in the unnamed country that serves as the movie’s backdrop, and half in Vietnam. It’s a totally ridiculous moment, and completely ruins any verisimilitude that Dowdle has managed to create thus far, leaving the viewer to scratch his or her head and wonder WtF?
And one last issue: what kind of father tells his frightened daughter – when she’s being forced to point a gun at him – to shoot him and that it’s okay to do so? What kind of selfless, parental martyrdom is being expounded here? True, it’s intended to make an already tense situation all the more horrific (or potentially so), but it’s likely most viewers will be wondering, again, WtF?
For all its tense confrontations and attempts to make the rebels as thuggish and murderous as possible, No Escape is hampered too much by Dowdle’s uncomfortable mix of revolution and manhunt, and his mandate that no real harm shall come to the family. What this leaves the viewer with is a movie that looks like it’s going to be tough and uncompromising, but in reality only treats its secondary and minor characters as if they were expendable. Now if one of the children had died…
Rating: 5/10 – mostly efficient, but neutered by a squeamishness about hurting the family, No Escape at least stops short of making Wilson an action hero, but does ask him to play a character who seems to be wilfully putting his family in harms way; better in its opening half hour, and before Jack starts throwing his children off of a rooftop, the movie tries its best to be a hard-hitting thriller, but never hits the mark.